Canada Reads 2023 has come to a close, with Jeopardy superstar Mattea Roach championing Ducks by Kate Beaton to victory, in the finale against Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, defended by actor Michael Greyeyes. Beaton’s graphic memoir of her time in the oil sands faced some staunch opposition along the way to victory, including some panelists struggling with the comic format, the blur of the quickly changing cast of characters, and the lack of focus on indigenous perspectives.
Roach argued that the graphic format, while new to many readers, made the heavy subject matter more accessible, and that the story’s transregional nature would appeal to a broad range of Canadians. The theme this year was “one book to shift your perspective,” and Roach set out to shift the country’s perspective on an entire medium. Jeff Lemire’s Essex County is the only other graphic novel to ever feature on Canada Reads, and it was eliminated on the first day of competition all the way back in 2010.
The Canada Reads team followed the tradition of calling the winning author after the final vote, and Kate Beaton used her air time to speak to the ongoing impact the oil sands are having on the indigenous communities of Northern Alberta.
With Canada Reads finished for this year, what should you read next?
The Canada Reads Longlist
While five titles were featured on this year’s debates, there were ten other titles on the 2023 Canada Reads longlist. Personally, I have my eye on the novel Dandelion by Jamie Chai Yun Liew, and Simu Liu’s memoir We Were Dreamers about his journey into Hollywood. I’ve also made the full 2023 longlist into a Goodreads list and a Storygraph list if you’d like to to add them to your virtual shelves!
If This, Then That
If your favourite book on Canada Reads this year was Ducks, try Patti LaBoucane-Benson’s graphic novel The Outside Circle, with art by Kelly Mellings. Pete is a young Aboriginal man wrapped up in the gang life, struggling to support his younger brother Joey, and his mother Bernice, who is addicted to heroin. When a fight with his mother’s boyfriend sends Pete to jail, he discovers how illusive his crew’s loyalty really is. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history. There Pete must face the many ways he has failed his family and himself .
If you were rooting for Station Eleven, check out the prescient pandemic novel Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz. Written between 2013 and 2019, the novel begins in the summer of 2020 when New York City police officer Elliot Howe finds himself in quarantine after he learns that he was exposed to a novel coronavirus that becomes known as ARAMIS. While Elliot is quarantined, the rabid hunt begins for ARAMIS Girl, a young Asian woman falsely believed to be patient zero for the outbreak. The novel also follows Owen Grant, a writer who is reluctantly drawn into the spotlight because he wrote a novel that seemed to predict the ARAMIS outbreak, and Emma Aslet, a singer-songwriter who is planning an ARAMIS relief fundraiser while she is expecting her first child.
If you were enraptured by Mexican Gothic, try Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s earlier novel, Certain Dark Things. Morena-Garcia has a special talent for making a genre her own, and in Certain Dark Things she takes on the vampire novel. Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention.
If your top pick was Hotline, you might also like What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad. This short but powerful novel follows a little boy named Amir, a Syrian refugee who washes ashore on an island where refugees are unwelcome. When he follows his uncle down to the docks late one night, Amir finds himself aboard a smuggler’s ship bound across the sea. On board that ill-fated ship are many passengers with disparate hopes for the future, if only they can get to a better place. When the ship sinks in a storm, Amir meets fifteen-year-old Vanna, a resident of one of the islands that the migrants try so desperately to reach. Pursued by the local authorities, Amir and Vanna go on the run, but tiny islands keep no secrets and have very few places to hide.
If you were hoping for Greenwood to win, pick up The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. This is the true story of the ancient tree that became known as K’iid K’iyass, or the golden spruce, a giant that stood on the banks of the Yakoun River in Haida Gwaii until 1997, when it was felled in a protest against the logging industry. Part history and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home.
Past Canada Reads Winners
If you’re new to Canada Reads, there’s also a long and rich list of past winners to choose from. Some of my favourites have included Kim Thuy’s poetic novel Ru, which won in 2015; The Illegal which won in 2016, making author Lawrence Hill the only two-time winner to date; and We Have Always Been Here, a memoir by Samra Habib which won in 2020.
Canada Reads has been running for 22 years, so you can find the full list of past winners on the CBC website, or check out my reviews of the winners dating back to 2013.
See you next year Canada Reads fans!